By John le Carre

Walker. 151 pp. $18


By John le Carre

Walker. 152 pp. $18

John le Carre's "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" was America's No. 1 bestseller in 1964, edging out Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's "Candy" and Saul Bellow's "Herzog" and launching a 40-year career in which le Carre has had few peers in terms of both popular and critical success. He is the greatest of spy novelists, and his supreme creation has been the spymaster George Smiley, whose skills, passions and uncertainties are at the heart of his finest novels. What many of le Carre's fans may not know is that, before "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," he had published two short novels that introduced Smiley. These have now been reissued, and le Carre fans who have missed them should scurry to their bookstores and settle in for a treat.

The novels are of interest both for their early portrait of Smiley and, in their own right, for the stories they tell. Le Carre says in his introduction to "Call for the Dead" (1961) that he began writing because he was "going mad with boredom" while working for the British intelligence agency MI5 in London and that Smiley was based in part on both Vivian Green, his chaplain and "confessor" in public school, and on the "devious resourcefulness and simple patriotism" of his MI5 colleague John Bingham. In the first chapter of "Call for the Dead," titled "A Brief History of George Smiley," Smiley emerges fully formed. In later decades we will encounter a Smiley who is older, perhaps wiser and certainly more powerful, but all his color and complexity were there from the start. Le Carre begins with Smiley's marriage "near the end of the war" to Lady Ann Sercomb, whose friends were astonished, and who "left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver." Near the end of the novel she offers reconciliation, which Smiley refuses to view as a humiliation, and their marriage will continue to torment him for years.

We are told that Smiley is "short, fat and of a quiet disposition" and that he "appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad." His face, we are often reminded, is that of a toad or perhaps a mole. But we also learn that he is brave and dedicated; one of his wartime superiors said Smiley possessed "the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin." Le Carre knew his man from the first and drew him in bold strokes that announced the birth of a hero. Le Carre's writing skills were all there, too: the intelligence, the subtlety, the descriptive power, the scorn for those who lack Smiley's resolve. What is lacking in these books is le Carre's readiness to tackle the big, complex Cold War themes that would soon make his fortune.

In "Call for the Dead," set in and around London, Smiley investigates the suicide of a Foreign Office employee and soon suspects murder. His investigation focuses on the victim's bitter, enigmatic wife, a Holocaust survivor, and then brings him into conflict with a charismatic German who worked for Smiley during the war but now is a spy for East Germany. As P.D. James notes in her foreword, the story combines elements of the thriller, the spy novel and the detective novel, as Smiley deciphers how the suicide could have been faked and then sets out to punish those responsible. There is only one moment when the story, set in the late 1950s, seems sweetly dated. That is when Smiley, about to confront his nemesis, debates whether to go armed: "He had a gun somewhere, and for a moment he thought of looking for it. Then, somehow, it seemed pointless. Besides, he reflected grimly, there'd be the most frightful row if he used it."

After what he calls the modest success of "Call for the Dead," le Carre took an odd step. Motivated by what he admits is pure hatred for English boarding schools, which he was obliged to attend from age 5 to 16, he wrote "A Murder of Quality" (1962), which has nothing to do with spies but casts Smiley as, in effect, a private detective investigating a murder at the fictional Carne School. A faculty member's pious wife, after warning that her husband planned to kill her, is indeed found beaten to death in her home. Her husband is the logical suspect, but his alibi appears solid, so suspicion falls on others as well. Most of the faculty of the Carne School seem quite capable of murder. In an early scene we meet one who is described as "hideous," as having "the slow rotten smile of a whore" and as hating her husband because "within her great ugly body she was as cunning as a snake." And, not to give too much away, this monster isn't even the killer.

As the publisher Otto Penzler notes in his foreword, "A Murder of Quality" owes more to the Sherlock Holmes stories than to the spy novels of Eric Ambler or Graham Greene. On the basis of a recent rereading of the Holmes stories, I must add that le Carre's plot is far more subtle and complex than any Arthur Conan Doyle ever devised. Had le Carre wished, he might have made a great detective out of Smiley, who certainly ranks up there with Holmes and Hercule Poirot in terms of peculiarities as well as in his deductive ability. Instead, after settling old scores in "A Murder of Quality," le Carre returned to the world of espionage, a decision for which we must be grateful. Each of these novels is a gem, indispensable for those who treasure George Smiley and his later service on our behalf.